SpaceX can now launch national-security satellites with used rockets.
Elon Musk's company just signed a contract modification with the U.S. Space Force that allows two upcoming GPS satellite launches to use Falcon 9 boosters with preflown first stages. That's a first for national-security payloads, and it will result in savings of nearly $53 million for American taxpayers across the two flights, Space Force officials said.
"SpaceX is proud to leverage Falcon 9's flight-proven benefits and capabilities for national security space launch missions," SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement emailed out by the Space Force today (Sept. 25).
"We appreciate the effort that the U.S. Space Force invested into the evaluation and are pleased that they see the benefits of the technology," Shotwell said. "Our extensive experience with reuse has allowed SpaceX to continually upgrade the fleet and save significant precious tax dollars on these launches."
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SpaceX routinely lands and reflies the first stages of the workhorse, two-stage Falcon 9. The powerful Falcon Heavy, which has launched just three times to date, is similarly reusable. (Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a modified central booster topped by a second stage.)
Today's announcement marks another step in the Space Force's growing acceptance of reusable-rocket technology. The military branch's Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) previously signed contract modifications allowing SpaceX to land Falcon 9 first stages during GPS launches.
The company did just that on the GPS III-SV03 mission this past June, and it plans to do so again for GPS III-SV04, which is scheduled to lift off next Tuesday (Sept. 29).
The new contract modifications allow the GPS III-SV05 and GPS III-SV06 satellites to ride atop Falcon 9s with preflown first stages, which will land back on Earth after their work in the upward direction is done. Those two launches are scheduled to take place sometime next year.
"SMC’s commitment to innovative partnerships and working with the commercial sector while maintaining our mission assurance posture and mission-success record cannot be understated," Walt Lauderdale, head of SMC’s Falcon Systems and Operations Division and frequent mission director, said in the same statement.
"I am proud of our partnership with SpaceX that allowed us to successfully negotiate contract modifications for the upcoming GPS III missions that will save taxpayers $52.7 million while maintaining our unprecedented record of success," Lauderdale said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.